By Mathieu Duperre, CEO, Edgegap
When Apple’s App Store launched in 2008 it had just over 500 apps, a small handful of which were games. Today, mobile gaming is one of the dominant categories on Apple’s store, with players able to choose from over 460,000 games, and with games making up almost 25% of all apps.
Ever since games that require a network connection first became popular, many operators have supplied data packages offering gamers a higher quality of service, often bundling in gaming hardware, content, and even online platform subscriptions for an even better deal. In the early days this was bundling consoles and broadband connections, but today mobile games make up roughly half of all global games industry revenues, so it’s natural that mobile games are now the focus of telcos. As a result of this, some have started co-locating and hosting the servers of top developers to improve the experience when playing online. More recently, telcos have been hard at work with the rollout of 5G, bringing more reliable connections to mobile gaming fans across the globe.
Today, the biggest challenge facing telcos is the rise of always-online experiences, where players immerse themselves in massive online worlds with millions of other players from around the world. The global demands of online connectivity can make things particularly difficult for smaller studios in the mobile sector that have to contend with a variety of API rules across different countries, whereas the largest game studios can usually afford to buy and manage their own infrastructure.
The mobile industry has risen to the task by introducing the GSMA Open Gateway initiative, a framework of universal network Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) providing developers with universal access to operator networks. But what does this mean for the latest online games and the developers making them?
How the GSMA will support smaller studios
The GSMA’s impact will only be felt by mobile game studios, and mainly those on the smaller side. There are a few reasons for this, but primarily, creating and maintaining an always online game is such a significant undertaking that larger studios such as Riot (League of Legends) and Epic (Fortnite) develop their own dedicated Cloud platforms so they have more direct control over the experiences of their players.
On the other hand, smaller studios typically have to rely on third-party support from network providers, and that’s where things can get complicated; especially if they’re working with numerous third parties across different countries. They’ll all have their own APIs to contend with.
Most telcos use complex standards to guide how vendors should build products to be used in their network, which can be highly variable (especially between different countries), requiring a lot of investment to follow. When it gets to the app developers, many of these requirements have already been abstracted – for example, within the requirements of the Apple or Google stores.
But an increasing number of mobile games are taking advantage of the increased bandwidth and lower latency of 5G to create complex, global multiplayer games. For example, the mobile version of console and PC juggernaut Call of Duty regularly attracts more than 50 million players each month. Genshin Impact, a fantasy-themed game that is playable across mobile, console and PC, currently has more than 4 million gamers playing it every day.
Those companies that want their titles to be played worldwide and reach the widest possible audience therefore need to understand and adapt to a host of technical and network issues if they are to deliver a functional game at such scale.
The GSMA is aiming to alleviate some of those issues by introducing standardised open APIs, meaning games companies working with any of the 21 mobile networks that signed up for the initiative will be able to use the same APIs across all of them.
The key API for gamers is the Quality-On-Demand (QoD) API; this provides a programmable interface for developers to request improved latency or throughput performance. In a nutshell, this is a way for a game to send a message to the network saying “give me your fastest/lowest latency connection please”, which should improve online game performance and provide an optimal connection to the network.
The challenges still facing online games
The introduction of a common API framework is to be welcomed, but challenges remain. The obvious one is that at launch, only 21 telcos have signed up – although this includes all the major global and regional players, and we can expect more to join over time. But while there is still fragmentation there is complexity, and therefore cost.
The GSMA’s initiative is more aimed at the integration of apps and services into things like common mobile billing APIs, user identity and cybersecurity. Whilst games companies can obviously make good use of these – virtually all games rely on some element of in-game purchases and microtransactions to make money – the ongoing challenge for online gaming is latency. Latency is the result of a combination of factors rather than just API rules, and according to our Online Gaming Connectivity Report, 97% of gamers have experienced latency when playing online, with 34% stating that they find it so frustrating that they will quit their game or session after encountering it.
Ultimately, the widespread rollout of 5G networks in combination with more efficient cloud hosting is the best recipe for lower latency gaming.
How edge technology addresses the GSMA’s limitations
Thankfully, all is not lost, as the GSMA also enables access to a host of advanced network features that can help improve the performance of online games. One of these features is network slicing, which divides the network into dedicated portions, ensuring reliable connectivity by dedicating a part of the network to an online game.
Another is edge computing, which alleviates latency problems by taking advantage of proximity hosting. This means that when a player launches a game, a real-time decision-making platform uses the player’s IP address, among other variables, to determine the best location nearby to host their game out of hundreds of servers worldwide. By reducing the distance between players and game servers in this way, players experience improved responsiveness in multiplayer games and less network lag.
Factoring in the above, the best solution for online game developers would be to work with a third-party aggregator with access to these technologies. This means that in situations where their game is being deployed in a country with less-advanced network capabilities, technologies such as edge computing are there to jump in and ensure players have a great experience. Working with an aggregator also helps to keep things simple for the game developer, as they will only have to deal with a single platform or vendor, meaning they can focus on what they do best: creating fantastic games.
With the appetite for gaming showing no signs of slowing, expect to see more initiatives aimed at delivering common standards, and the integration of technologies like edge in the future, as telcos seek to capture a slice of the huge revenues being generated.
Long time reader, first time contributor. Love technology and the great outdoors. Looking forward to discussing everything beyond 5G and the future of wireless technology!